How Aristotle’s conception of habits can advance neuroscience

A new article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience explores how the Aristotelian conception of habit can influence neuroscientific research.

“In order to achieve a deep understanding of the main topics concerning the human mind, neuroscience must dialog with other sources of knowledge,” Javier Bernacer and Jose Ignacio Murillo wrote in their article. “In addition, from time to time, it is necessary to take a break from experimental work and ponder whether certain things taken for granted need to be revisited. Such is the case, in our opinion, with the concept of habit and habit learning.”

Aristotle, the famed ancient Greek philosopher who tutored Alexander the Great, described a habit as an acquired disposition to perform certain types of action.

“Aristotle characterizes habits as dispositions, that is, particular arrangements of human capacities,” Bernacer and Murillo explained. “The cornerstone that underlies the Aristotelian theory of action is the following: when an agent does or makes something, there is an effect not only on the receiver of the action or the product made, but also — and more importantly — on the agent.”

The mainstream view of habits in neuroscience and the behavioral sciences, in contrast, holds that habits are unconscious, fixed patterns of behavior that are non-teleological — i.e. carried out without an particular end in mind.

But in Aristotle’s conception, habits are goal-directed.

“As he states in Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics: ‘for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.’ We add: through our actions, we acquire the disposition or habit of being builders, mathematicians, piano players or temperate. Since these habits are gained through practice, this process is goal directed,” Bernacer and Murillo wrote.

Ethics was the main concern of Aristotle in his analysis of habits, and his conception allows researchers to classify habits as good or bad.

“If the acquisition of a habit implies a better cognitive control of the actions related to that habit, it can be considered as ‘good’. Otherwise, if it involves rigidity and blurs the goal, it is a ‘bad’ habit,” Bernacer and Murillo said.

Good versus bad habits can also be viewed as habits-as-learning versus habits-as-routines, “thus highlighting the behavioral plasticity or the rigidity they lead to,” they added.

The mainstream view of habits, Bernacer and Murillo contend, only accounts for habits-as-routines.

Providing concrete examples to bolster their claim, the authors cite learning to play a musical instrument as a “good” habit and compulsions as a “bad” habit.

“Habits contribute to improving action performance because they release consciousness from having to focus on immediate goals, and allow all cognitive resources to focus instead on higher goals… A good pianist is able to improvise and concentrate on the artistic eloquence of the piece, because his or her acquired habit allows the player to go beyond the mere movements of his or her hands.”

Good habits can transform into bad habits if they become disconnected from an end goal, Bernacer and Murillo said.

They explained, “the lack of cognitive control in [bad]habits could be also a crucial feature in the case of compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder: washing one’s hands triggers a set of motor routines towards the goal of personal hygiene. However, when someone washes them repeatedly without a purpose, it becomes a compulsion.”